In the mid-1990s, shortly after joining the staff of The Honolulu Advertiser, I developed a good working relationship with a group of people – some official, some not – that sought to locate Hawaii’s missing children. This story grew out of that relationship and, in an example that Hawaii is a small place, introduced me to a machinist I had often seen during a college job years earlier at the Institute for Astronomy – David Kempton.
Kempton reluctantly shared his sad story, which was originally published on Aug. 9, 1995. A few months later, Kempton experienced a miracle. This follow-up was originally published Jan. 21, 1996.
By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer
The sound of his daughter’s voice had long ago slipped from David Kempton’s memory. Vanished without a trace — just like she had on that weekend in September 1953.
So, Kempton trembled as he pressed the telephone to his ear one week ago in his Nuuanu home.
After 42 years, it was Donna.
His little Donna.
The smiling blonde 4-year-old abducted by her mother.
Kempton had found her. Against the odds. While his head had said impossible, his heart had hoped he was wrong.
They talked for an hour.
“I’m someplace else besides reality,” Kempton said later. “It’s great.”
Luck – or was it fate? – had brought father and daughter together after Kempton, who is 73, threw his energy at one final search.
No one could have predicted the amazing results.
Or that an old photograph, a one-in-a-million juxtaposition of people and a tabloid TV show would lead to a family haunted by lies, secrets and silence.
Photo prompts questions
She had seen the old photo many times. It stirred something deep inside her soul, prompted questions no one would answer.
But as a young girl, it was one of the first clues that something about her life with “mom” and “dad” was very wrong.
Whenever she asked about the young boy in the photo, her mother said it was a neighbor.
Whenever she asked about persistent memories of a man and a boy in a place far away, her mother said it was a dream.
Above all, one image seemed to stand out for Donna Rae Roe.
“I remember the night she walked out with me,” she said. “I can see it. I can close my eyes and see the night we walked away with a suitcase in her hand and meeting a man on the corner and getting into his car.
“I have been asking my mom about that image since I was little.”
When she was 17, she found her baptismal certificate hidden among her mother’s belongings. The name on it was not the one she called her own.
Who was Donna Rae Kempton?
A private heartache
Few knew David Kempton’s private heartache.
He is a careful man, his world lathed by a long career as a machinist.
In his workshop beneath Bilger Hall on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus, form follows function. Here, Kempton carves out scientific instruments for the Chemistry Department, precisely and cleanly.
But Donna Rae Kempton was never far from his mind. Mere mention of the name “Donna” conjured images of a cheeky toddler.
Sometimes, he thought of her mother, Barbara.
“She was my first love,” he said.
Kempton was in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1946, stationed in Calcutta, a long way from his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio.
He met Barbara Pyne at a dance. She was exotic, a Eurasian woman from Burma.
They were married on Valentine’s Day 1946. By spring, they had moved to Cleveland.
Their first child was a boy, Steven; 2½ years later, Donna arrived.
The marriage lasted until New Year’s Eve 1952. Barbara had fallen in love with an itinerant factory worker named Charles Semmler.
Kempton received custody of his children. Barbara got visitation rights.
It was a Friday when Kempton dropped Donna off for her first visit. On Sunday, when he returned to Barbara’s home, the place was empty.
He didn’t call the police. A private detective all but laughed at him.
“She was a war bride with no connections in this country,” Kempton said. “Her boyfriend was an avowed itinerant, so there was no way to trace them — even if I had the resources.”
Kempton would re-marry, raising Steven and three new children as best he could.
But he was a wounded man.
“For a long time, inside, I was an emotional mess,” Kempton said.
In 1970, he moved his family to Hawaii, where he now lives with his third wife.
Over time, as memories of Donna grew dimmer, Kempton clung to a black and white photograph he had taken of her and Steven during the girl’s fourth birthday party.
Just a few weeks before she vanished.
Anne Clarkin, coordinator for the Hawaii State Clearinghouse on Missing Children, took on the Kempton case in April 1995.
Kempton’s plight moved Clarkin, the sole employee of this low-budget, high-tech operation in the state Attorney General’s Office.
She wanted an age-progression specialist at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to “morph” the last photograph Kempton had of Donna, who by now would be 46.
Clarkin also hoped she could get the case featured on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.”
Success was a long shot of epic proportions.
Even though a special computer program is used, there is some artistic license involved because no software can take a child’s face 42 years into the future.
The rendering took two days. Almost immediately, Clarkin started showing the “aged” photo, hoping to get enough publicity to convince “Unsolved Mysteries” to feature Kempton.
“Unsolved Mysteries” aired Donna Rae Kempton’s story on the night of Jan. 12, flashing images of her “new” face and that birthday party photo. Her father stood vigil over the telephone from 3 to 8 p.m. while the show was broadcast in time zones across the country.
The show’s producers had told Kempton to expect instant results. By 8:15 p.m., they called to say they were wrong. Kempton wasn’t surprised.
“I am a pretty cautious individual,” he said. “I thought they might be trying to put a positive face on it. I didn’t really think it would happen that way.
“Still when it didn’t, part of me was a little disappointed.”
Fifteen minutes later, they called back.
Donna Roe’s half sister spit a cherry tomato across the kitchen when “Unsolved Mysteries” opened its show.
Right there on her TV screen was the biggest shock of her life. She didn’t know who that older woman was — the one in the “morphed” image — but she knew the 4-year-old with the blonde bangs and the kitten.
She had seen that photo years ago. Only a handful of people — maybe six — ever have.
Inside of a minute, she telephoned her sister, Donna Rae Roe, who lives nearby in San Jose, Calif.
“No way, no way, no way, this can’t be,” Roe kept telling her husband as “Unsolved Mysteries” aired a re-enactment of her abduction and an interview with David Kempton.
But it was true.
There on her TV screen was the man Roe had wondered about since she was 17 years old. Her real father.
She never expected this would happen.
It had taken 10 years before she could even find the courage ask her mother about the baptismal certificate. The story that spilled out turned a long drive into a three-hour confession.
“I had always put off looking for him because I always thought I had to protect Barbara and Charles,” Roe said.
“I really think they have waited all these years for the FBI to show up at their door and arrest them for kidnapping.”
Instead, it’s going to be Roe who knocks on their front door.
Her parents do not watch “Unsolved Mysteries,” she said.
“This is going to be a big shock to my mother,” Roe said. “Hopefully it will bring some relief to her. I don’t know if Chuck even knows I know he is not my real father.”
She has never pressed her mother for reasons, even for the one question that still gnaws at her.
“I have always wondered how my mother could live with the fact that she left a kid behind,” Roe said. “She has known for 42 years that she has had a son out there.”
Roe grew up in Northern California and said her childhood was normal.
Barbara joined the PTA and was always there when Donna and her half-sister came home from school. “Chuck” was a machinist, a strict, but fair parent.
“I never felt unloved by him,” Roe said. “His love was always special to me because I have always known he didn’t have to love me.”
Today Barbara and Charles — both in their 70s — live under an assumed last name.
Roe refuses to reveal that last name or where they live. She won’t talk about her half-sister, either.
She also refuses to allow her picture to be taken, worried that the publicity will adversely affect her parents and her business — she owns The Travel Shoppe in nearby Los Gatos.
But she hates the morphed photograph.
“I think it is totally off base,” she said. “My eyes are further apart. My face is thinner. I don’t have such a high forehead. All my friends say I am much better looking than this picture.”
Talks to daughter
Two days after “Unsolved Mysteries” featured David Kempton and his precious photograph, he was talking to his daughter.
It was difficult and wonderful.
The voice he had forgotten had long since changed and his little girl was no longer a tow-headed cherub.
She had grown up without him, but he was never far from her thoughts.
They blamed no one.
“Apparently, this whole thing has weighed very heavily on Barbara all these years,” Kempton said. “I told Donna that I would like her to tell her mother I bear her no grudge. I would hope that would lift some of that burden.”
Kempton told Roe to call her brother, Steven, a restaurant manager in Midland, Texas.
Last Monday, the siblings bridged a 42-year gap with nervous laughter and kind words.
The boy in the photo had grown up without her — had spent his life trying to forget memories that always hurt him.
He blamed no one, though. Not anymore.
“Mom did what she thought she had to do, what she thought was right at the time,” he said. “The important thing is we move forward and that we live for today.”
That means a reunion, a thought that makes him pause.
“Hopefully, my mom will want to get to know me again.”
Postscript: Donna was reunited with her father David at his home in Hawaii on April 19, 1996. David Kempton passed away in 2006.